A Strange Kind of Victory

Some pundits are celebrating the effort to get rid of Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons. But if this is progress, what does failure look like?

I'm slightly relieved to discover that Katrina vanden Heuvel considers the Nobel Peace Prize no real measure of success or international recognition. I couldn't agree with her more.

In a short and silly op-ed for the Washington Post, the Nation magazine editor lamented that "progress" on decommissioning Syria's chemical stockpiles has gone unheralded, despite the fact that Oslo recently conferred its annual award to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). She's good enough to admit that this is because the progress is still "incomplete." She's certainly right on that score. After all, the worst humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century -- in which 40 percent of a national population is now in urgent need of foreign assistance and upwards of 100,000 people have been killed -- continues unimpeded. (The photo above shows rebel fighters taking cover in Aleppo on Nov. 6.)

Vanden Heuvel believes we should give Syria more credit. "The diplomacy on Syria's chemical weapons seems to be succeeding in part," vanden Heuvel writes, "because Russia put its power and prestige on the line, not only in offering a political lifeline to President Obama, but also in pressuring the Assad government to act decisively to give up its weapons and cooperate with the United Nations."

This is a fairy-tale view of recent history. In reality, Russia baited a trap for the United States and dressed it up as a convenient emergency hatch for President Obama to slip through in order to escape a disastrous and confused Syria policy that was entirely of his own making. Moreover, the deal vanden Heuvel lauds was rigged from the start and already shows signs of being played and manipulated by Damascus.

As Foreign Policy's Colum Lynch noted in his recent article on the UN Security Council resolution that authorized the destruction of Syria's chemical stockpiles, the Kremlin made sure that its passage was contingent on so many provisos as to vitiate the entire agreement. For a start, there is no built-in mechanism for punishing the regime should it fail to comply with disarmament; first, a team of diplomats from the UN and the OPCW will have to confer to determine if any violations have occurred. And Russia ensured that these violations would have to be "indisputable and proved" and of a sufficient "gravity" to warrant follow-up action, namely a Chapter VII resolution that might authorize military force. Russia will no doubt have a say in what constitutes "indisputable and proved." Here vanden Heuvel might recall that Moscow continues to deny that Bashar al-Assad even used chemical weapons to gas people in his capital city. The Kremlin, in all its power and prestige, continues to rely on the word of conspiracist websites and a crackpot Carmelite nun to buttress its claim that the Aug. 21 sarin attacks on Ghouta were either staged or carried out by rebels who received the nerve agent from Saudi Arabia. Finally, the UNSC resolution did not refer a single member of the regime's inner circle or military responsible for the atrocity to the International Criminal Court. Instead, it implicitly delegitimized the perpetrators as necessary partners in counter-proliferation, thus giving them a license to kill by any other means.

This is why Assad plans to run for "re-election" in 2014 and still classifies his opponents as "terrorists" slated for killing, not bartering with. It's why he's displayed a renewed confidence about his long-term survival odds in recent media interviews. It's why Iran has "hundreds" of its own troops fighting -- and dying -- alongside those of the Syrian regime. And it's why, according to a hangdog U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, Russia has upped its conventional arms sales to the regime, including sales of refurbished aircraft: "There are more deliveries. And in some cases they are, militarily, extremely significant," the U.S. State Department's point man on Syria told the Senate last week.

So the anticlimactic reception attending these developments, which vanden Heuvel finds paltry, is actually quite the appropriate response to a mass murderer's impunity.

She also relies on the headline-grabbing fact that "OPCW inspectors have successfully dismantled 21 out of 23 chemical weapons sites" and "secured the removal of weapons equipment from the two remaining sites that were too dangerous for them to reach." 

On the first point, there is a reason that the total decommissioning deadline was set for 2014, not two months after the resolution was inked. Eliminating stockpiles entails more than just dismantling facilities, which is why chemical weapons experts are deeply skeptical that this plan can ever be carried to completion. The architects of the plan, the United States and Russia, have spent decades under peaceful conditions trying to fully rid themselves of their stockpiles, and they're still not done yet. "The really bad stuff -- the precursor chemicals -- you either have to develop a method to chemically neutralize it or you develop a high-tech incineration process where high temperatures actually cause these chemicals to decompose into their base elements," explains Dan Kaszeta, a former U.S. Army Chemical Corps officer. "So you have to build a factory to do it, or you have to take it to a preexisting factory to do it." Assad's warplanes and artillery are quite busying destroying factories and much else, and good luck laying a foundation anywhere in Syria. As for shipping the precursors outside of the country -- Albania is evidently a taker here -- there are serious hazards in transport that not even the 40 armored trucks, metal crates, and water tanks the regime is requesting from the UN would be able to circumnavigate. "You're only a bullet or a grenade away from a major catastrophe," Kaszeta said. He offered the example of the Nazi air raid on Bari, Italy, in 1943, in which 28 Allied cargo ships were bombed and sunk. One of the ships was carrying mustard gas, and the toxin's release resulted in an excessive loss of life.

Furthermore, one of the two sites previously deemed too insecure to access was almost certainly the chemical facility in al-Safira, Aleppo. This district had been surrounded for months by rebel and jihadist fighters, but it recently fell to regime forces -- after the Syrian Air Force dropped barrel bombs on the area round-the-clock for the past month. The price tag for the inspectors' access to this site was high. Here's a video of an older woman being pulled from the rubble, and here's one showing what remains of the marketplace of al-Safira. Two field hospitals were powdered with TNT. Medicins san Frontieres said that 130,000 people fled the district since Oct. 8, many of them unable to access humanitarian aid. Does vanden Heuvel think this deserves one or two cheers for international diplomacy?

Finally, as reported by FP, Damascus has indicated that it isn't quite ready to let go of all its accessories to WMD production. Foreign Minister Walid Moallem has asked the OPCW to prevent a dozen chemical facilities from being razed to the ground in order to convert them into civilian-use plants. Shall I be the first to suggest that the regime is probably up to no good here? The last tyrant to deploy a nerve agent against a population and then request to keep concomitant hardware for supposedly innocuous purposes was Saddam Hussein. Charles Duelfer, a member of the Iraq Survey Group, reminds us that Saddam's chemical industry "was being rebuilt with the embedded option of producing chemical weapons at some point in the future." Not that Bashar al-Assad would ever go back on his word, of course. But then there's the niggling little problem that, according to several U.S. intelligence officials, he has not actually declared all of his stockpiles to the OPCW. "They have done things recently that suggest Syria is not ready to get rid of all their chemical weapons," one such official told CNN yesterday. It's worth recalling that, even before the Ghouta sarin deployment, there were many reports of Syria moving its chemical arms around the country.

We shouldn't let this get in the way of vanden Heuvel's celebratory mood, however. "Today, as envoys from the United States, Russia and the United Nations meet in Geneva to resurrect the long-delayed peace conference that was first proposed in May," she concludes, "they have the opportunity to build on the diplomatic progress of the past several weeks."

Yeah, well, here's today's Reuters headline: "U.S., Russia fail to agree Syria peace talks date." And here's why Geneva 2 is another fairy tale. The United States hasn't got a client on the ground in Syria that can plausibly be said to represent the bulk of the fighting forces ranged against Assad. The one group it could cajole into showing up -- the Syrian Oppositional Coalition (SOC) -- has said that Assad's ouster is a necessary precondition for talks. (And the SOC has itself been repeatedly denounced by influential rebels as a bunch of feckless exiles.) Saudi Arabia has indicated its willingness to pursue its own strategy for winning the war while Washington jaw-jaws. Al Qaeda is currently emirate-building in northern Syria and growing more powerful with each passing day. Russia, meanwhile, insists that Iran should attend the conference, even as the IRGC embeds with the Syrian army and trains up sectarian militias to kill the rebels that the United States thinks are amenable to negotiating. Moscow also believes, judging from its media, that the Syrian opposition includes: Bashar's uncle (Rifat al-Assad, the architect of the Hama massacre in 1982 who's been living in Paris for the past three decades), ex-deputy prime minister Qadri Jamil (who has demanded -- in Pravda, no less -- war "reparations" from Turkey), and Haytham al-Manna, a member of the National Coordination Committee (who is seen as quite close to Tehran and who said, in October 2011, that peaceful protestors had been paid to take the streets).

If this is progress, Katrina, what does failure look like?


National Security

How Emperor Alexander Militarized American Cyberspace

And why the White House needs to split up the “deep state” of the NSA and Cyber Command.

The militarization of American cyber policy did not happen overnight. What began with a healthy balance of military and civilian interests has, over the course of the past 10 years, devolved into the largely exclusive domain of secretive military and intelligence groups bent on developing America's offensive and intelligence capabilities in cyberspace at the expense of other, longer-term national security interests.

Of course, the Department of Defense has been interested in military applications of the Internet (and cyberspace more broadly) for more than two decades, especially since 1991 when it used dominant information awareness to tear through the feared Iraqi army. In 1998, the Pentagon set up the first joint "cyber command," which I helped create, while that same year the FBI and Department of Commerce stood up sister offices to fight cybercrime and protect America's civilian infrastructure. In those early years, there was a healthy balance between the military and other executive departments and a high degree of cooperation. 

Moreover, there was a vigorous debate on the relative merits of offense and defense. Policymakers realized the Internet allowed nations to attack one another anonymously and with impunity; the presiding view was that this was a fatal risk for America that demanded prioritizing U.S. defenses. 

This balance lasted less than five years, until the standup in 2003 of the Department of Homeland Security swept up most of the existing civilian organizations and talent into a department which a decade later is still finding its voice.  The resulting chaos meant the Pentagon -- and its captive intelligence agencies, including the National Security Agency -- became the only organization with significant institutional and cyber power left standing, especially as fear of terrorism meant ever-more risk taking, fatter budgets, and stifling classification.  

Gen. Michael Hayden, then director of the NSA, positioned his organization to live up to this responsibility -- but his successor, Gen. Keith Alexander, raced into the gap and positioned NSA as the savior of American cyberspace.

Few military or intelligence professionals, then or now, have had any experience outside the closed world of national security. So this well-meaning group of patriotic insiders did what came most naturally: They classified everything and prioritized one national security goal -- more spying and attack capabilities -- above all others. Since classification levels permitted few, if any, outside voices, the seeming consensus helped convince U.S. policymakers to adopt General Alexander's "collect it all" strategy and create a new U.S. Cyber Command to streamline military cyber power. With Congress and the White House convinced (or captured), who could, or would, argue with the all-powerful "Emperor Alexander"?

Just as in 1998, the Internet still allowed nations to attack one another anonymously and with impunity. Only now, a new generation of military officers and policymakers see this not as a fatal risk but as a fantastic opportunity

It could have been a priority to ensure the Internet is safe and secure for U.S. citizens and commerce; this certainly has been the lofty rhetoric in the president's speeches and in published strategies. But the unfortunate fact (obvious everywhere except in Washington, D.C.) is that the military's naturally aggressive views dominate U.S. government ideas of how to conduct itself in cyberspace.

Today, the State Department has perhaps two or three dozen diplomats bravely trying to convince the world that the United States wants peace and an open, secure Internet. Unfortunately, at Fort Meade, headquarters of NSA and U.S. Cyber Command, there are more people with vastly larger budgets working towards opposite ends. The diplomats work towards America's stated priorities while the spies and warfighters create their own truths in the network. With powerful budgets and authorities, they can seize ground in cyberspace, infiltrating networks around the world with little friction from the Beltway bureaucracy. 

For example, U.S. diplomats were leading the fight to create norms that make Chinese espionage beyond the pale, while all along the NSA was infiltrating not just U.S. adversaries, but allies as well.

The U.S. government publicly claims to want a relatively borderless Internet to grow digital economies and nurture cyber culture, yet coerced U.S. companies to give NSA and U.S. Cyber Command the "high ground" of cyberspace by tapping information flows and tampering with American tech products. Other nations are already shunning these companies' products, convinced they were fronts for the NSA all along. 

When designing and launching the most sophisticated and disruptive cyberattack ever, the autonomous Stuxnet intended to cripple Iran's nuclear centrifuge program, the officials involved reportedly found it "ironic" that the United States was betraying all its fine language on wanting a safe and secure Internet. 

Other nations had already been exploring their own military options for cyberspace, but once they saw the United States putting so much effort into these kinds of attacks and spying, they piled on, too. Now Brazil, Japan, South Korea, Colombia, Iran, China, Russia, Norway, and Spain are getting in the act; any self-respecting military needs to boast of having its own cyber organization. 

To rebalance America's national security priorities in cyberspace, the administration must coordinate and publish an honest and open cyberstrategy. If President Obama truly wants a safe and secure cyberspace, he needs to be upfront about how this priority conflicts with the emphasis put on offensive and exploitation capabilities. He did this in the drone debate and it is overdue here.

The departure of General Alexander in early 2014 will help, but the White House should go further and split the "deep state" of NSA and Cyber Command to ensure no one officer ever again has such a dominant voice and monopoly of power.

Within the White House, to be more prominent advocates for a stronger defense, the president should plus-up his staff in the National Economic Council and Cyber Directorate of the National Security Council. However, with so much power concentrated in the directorates for defense and intelligence, he ought to appoint an independent senior official overseeing all cyber policy with far more power, policy oversight, and budget authority than today.

America's policymakers have forgotten that our true center of cyber power is not Fort Meade, but our private sector: the companies that create and maintain cyberspace and the companies and citizens that fill it with the content and commerce the world wants. This is a world where cyberspace underlies American prosperity, aided by U.S. policies that put commerce first. 

Rebalancing America's national security priorities away from the military and bringing them in line with our true power will give the United States -- and users of cyberspace everywhere -- a more stable and secure future.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images